Autochthonous (o•tok’ tho•nus): a new word for the wine lexicon

Autochthonous. An odd word with which to start a blog. There are people wiser than I who have tried to convince me to use one of its synonyms instead, like indigenous, or native. But no other word rings as true when I try to describe wines made from the slow grapes of southern Europe.

The beat-up Webster dictionary from my grammar school days says autochthonous derives from the word autochthon — One sprung from the ground which he inhabits; an aborigine; a native. This describes perfectly, for instance, my sense of the Spanish wine made from the ancient garnacha or grenache grape, once thought to be indigenous to Spain but recent discoveries point to it being  autochthonous to Sardinia. Or of the ancient Italian grape aglianico that emigrated from Greece some say over 8,000 years ago.

Ancient caves throughout Basilicata in southern Italy are still used to finish the local aglianico wine.

Wines produced from unique grapes are often lost in a marketplace dominated by the classic grapes: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and, in California, zinfandel. Often these slow wines are primarily crafted in old-world styles utilizing traditional winemaking techniques with little or no manipulation and the judicious use of wood. They are typically very clean wines although they often carry a wonderful touch of rustico. They are also food-friendly wines. In fact, they are food wines, period. Made to marry foods of their regions, “Old World” wines may not be at their best as stand-alone wines in competitions or at wine bars.

Okay. The disclaimer. My family owns Salvia Bianca Imports, a small California-based import company specializing in autochthonous varietals of southern and central Italy. There’s that word again! Since I am familiar with these regions, some of the wines I will be talking about in the months to come you can find on our web site, http://www.salviabiancacom. But the diversity of autochthonous grapes is astonishing — many are either too regional and overlooked for export, or they are native to regions outside our niche.

To those who continue to urge me to use the words “native” or “indigenous” instead of the mouthful “autochthonous” I must insist that neither conveys the depth of meaning nor the intense historicity of these grapes as well as the word autochthonous does. So get used to it! Just remember to forget to pronounce the “ch’s” and “th’s.” Or say it as they do in Italy, autoctono (ow • tock • toe • noe). After all, everything always seems to sound better in Italian.

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